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Shakespeare in the park, Long Beach-style

August 19, 2009 |  4:00 am

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The Bixby Park Bandshell in Long Beach was renovated more than a year ago to serve as a venue for concerts, celebrations and picnics, but the structure has been used mostly as a makeshift homeless shelter and a skateboarding haven for teens.

The next two weekends, however, it will transform into a free children’s theater, part of the Long Beach Sea Festival, a summer series of beach events.

On Saturday, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company will perform a 45-minute, condensed version of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” for children of all ages at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The story revolves around sorcerers and sea monsters on a deserted island. A narrator will help clarify the Old English being spoken by the actors.

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by mansions and aged apartments, Bixby Park caters to a melting pot of ethnicities, cultures and economic backgrounds. It also sports the 86-year-old band shell, which has sat idle since its renovation was completed last year after a storm severely damaged it in 2005.

“There was a need in our community, and this park is the epitome of the beauty of the multicultural and multi-ethnicity of Southern California, so we wanted to create this free public theater to provide for everyone at this park,” said Claudia Schou, who initiated the Shakespeare event.

It wasn’t easy accomplishing that task, though. Schou had to provide independent financing for advertising, city permits and insurance, and find a theater group to perform for free. It took almost four months of legwork to finish planning the event, with Schou personally paying for the fliers, meeting with city officials and involving local shops to donate money and (for the actors) food.

Events at the band shell have been limited because Long Beach, like cities across the country, has been tightening its belt in the throes of the recession, says Craig Watson, the city’s arts council director. The cost of mounting a public theater program would be difficult for the city to justify when other programs are being shut down, he said.

Longbeachsmall2 Schou, a Long Beach resident, made it her mission to put the band shell to use for her 4-year-old son and other children.

“I’m just a mom who would love to see this theater in a local park and know other families would love to see it used in the same way,” she said.

But she doesn’t take all the credit.

“It takes a village to pull this together, but I think it speaks volumes about people’s passion for theater and their commitment to the community and [exhibiting a] sense of civic pride,” she said.

The Long Beach Shakespeare Company, a nonprofit organization, was happy to get involved.

“When you can engage children and really capture their imagination, they are just so willing, when you say those words ‘Once upon a time,’ to go where you take them,” said Denis McCourt, co-artistic director of the company.

On Aug. 29, the Culver City Children’s Popcorn Theatre will perform an original production called "Aunt Fondeen and the Lost Dutchman Goldmine," also at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Although there are no plans beyond that, Schou and Watson hope that enthusiasm and support will grow and lead to future festivities at the band shell.

“If you can activate a facility with arts and culture, you have a potential of doing a series of new things,” Watson said. “It’s a way to turn the image of a park into something much more attractive and thereby really work to the benefit of the whole community.”

-- Juliette Funes

Top photo: Director Cynthia Santos-DeCure, center, gives instructions during the Long Beach Shakespeare Company's rehearsal of "The Tempest" in Bixby Park. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Bottom photo: Members of the Long Beach Shakespeare Company rehearse "The Tempest." Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times